In my household, one of the pleasures of being a kid in the summer was the occasional granting of a rare privilege:
Staying up past your usual bedtime.
I can’t recall exactly what that usual bedtime was, but I know for darn sure that I was in bed by 11 – and probably by 10 – most nights.
But once in a while in the summer, my parents would ease this restriction and I would be allowed to see some of the stuff I’d been missing.
I especially remember one night when it was so hot that I and my younger siblings were allowed to sleep downstairs in the living room, on bed sheets, after watching “The Tonight Show”! (Not to mention listening to the national anthem at the end of the now interminable “broadcast day.”)
This was in the early 1960s. Johnny Carson had taken over the show, but on this particular night the host was Groucho Marx, who introduced a comic we’d never seen before. I still remember his routine – something about karate.
It was Bill Cosby, not very long before his groundbreaking role in “I Spy.”
Usually we were in bed long before "The Tonight Show" came on, though my folks might make an exception if it was New Year’s Eve.
But sometimes we made it all the way to 11 p.m. before our parents decided that enough was enough, even for a summer night.
One show I remember – I think it was on Wednesday nights – was called “Stump the Stars.” It was basically charades with celebrities. I never quite understood the show – I’ve never been a big fan of charades, and the charades that were acted out were quite long. Watching Sebastian Cabot act out some not-very-funny joke wasn’t exactly the cultural highlight of the season, but hey – it’s past my bedtime, and I’m downstairs watching TV!
“Stump the Stars” was hosted by a guy named Mike Stokey, whose whole career seemed to consist of hosting this show under various titles over the years. I recently watched one episode on YouTube. I’d never seen the episode, but it pretty much seemed like the few episodes I managed to see in the 1960s, with celebrities whose names will probably be familiar only to those of my generation and earlier: actress Phyllis Kirk, comedian Jerry Lester and the great actor/raconteur Hans Conried. In one neat live TV moment, the rather conservative Conried takes offense at something done by Lester off screen. (Not surprising, considering that the works of Noel Coward were conspicuously absent from Lester’s resume.)
Another show I watched way back when, but which I don’t remember too well now, was “Masquerade Party.” The idea was simple: a celebrity comes out in a costume, and the panel has to guess who it is. I found an episode on YouTube, but though it was enjoyable enough, something that happened at the end bothered me: They brought out another celeb, also costumed, whose identity would be guessed the following week. Nothing wrong with that, but when you’re watching the show 50 years later and you realize you’ll never find out who this person is, well, it feels a little creepy, though I can hardly blame the producers for that.
One series that I remember – and it’s well-represented on YouTube – is “What’s My Line?” I can remember staying up late on a summer Sunday and watching these sophisticated people play the game – live! And there was something thrilling about seeing the mystery guest come out, always to great applause.
As I watch the episodes on YouTube, the show seems exactly the way I remember it from when I was a kid. New York seemed a different, more magical place then, and even now it’s fun to watch an unmasked mystery guest reminisce with a panelist about some play they once did together. It makes me almost want to take a vacation via time machine: A week in New York in the 1950s or 1960s. You’ll notice I said “almost” – there would always be the chance that I’d be disappointed, that the world of New York wasn’t really golden but bronze -- or even leaden.
However, it is a nice place to visit on YouTube, which I often do when I should be doing something else like, um, blogging. (I especially recommend seeking out the episode where mystery guest Red Skelton is quizzed by blindfolded panelist Fred Allen. Live, ad libbed TV comedy doesn’t get any better.)
But it did occur to me recently that in today’s world, a producer would be less likely to risk doing “What’s My Line?” live.
Because it amazes me to think that during the show’s Sunday night run, which lasted about 17 years, with most of the episodes live, they always brought out a mystery guest and no one – NO ONE – in the audience ever yelled out something like, “Hey, it’s Jackie Gleason!” It probably would never have occurred to anyone in the audience to do that.
Today? I’m not so sure, though I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.